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The pets in our lives and the lives of our pets

Why do people keep pets? This is one of those questions that may appear trivial to a very large number of us, especially those who have never had pets nor ever felt any desire to have any. But for anyone who has had a pet and lost the pet (and we are in a big-time minority), it is a deeply philosophical question, almost an existential one. 

We usually keep dogs or cats as pets—and I would think that dogs outnumber cats by several orders of magnitude in petdom in human households.

I have had both a cat and a dog as pet, and I have lost both of them much earlier than their natural lifespan.

And even if we as pet owners are in a pitiful minority—there’s apparently a tribe in New Guinea which keeps dogs to only torture them (Google it)—we have a story to tell. If only to justify our actions and habits. We are not that weird.

I lost my dog, a cocker spaniel named Juno, a week ago, to lymphoma—cancer of the lymph nodes—at an age of only seven and a half years, which means she was in the prime of her life.

She died cradled in my arms, and she was the first living creature I have actually seen die: a sudden breathing problem, gasping for air for about five minutes, then a flailing of her legs, a few hiccups, a look into my eyes, and then she was gone, her eyes still open and gazing into the middle distance where there was nothing to see.

My cat, Kitkat, died on the night of 25 January 2004, torn to pieces by street dogs who are always looking for prey. There are two types of cats—house cats and outdoor cats. Both can be pets. The house cat stays home and never ventures out. The outdoor cat is curious about the world and usually comes home only for her meals and her night’s rest. Kitkat was a house cat. 

In her two-and-a-half-year-long life, she ventured out only once, we don’t know when, and we were away, at a friend’s place for dinner, having locked our door and all other ways of ingress, and when we came back, she was dead on the street.

Everyone who keeps a pet knows that the creature—however well-fed and well-medicined and well-looked after—will quite possibly die before his or her feeder and look-afterer. And yet a pet’s death is emotionally—well, quite affecting.

So why do we keep pets at all? And invest in them psychologically, emotionally, physically and financially?

And only human beings keep pets. Chimpanzees don’t, lions don’t, even dogs don’t.

We are more or less certain that our hunter-gatherer ancestors managed to convince vicious wolves that being with hominids was a good deal, and in return, they acted as hunting companions, watchmen to give early warning of attacks from other hominid groups or from animals, and also be the vanguards of the defence—or offence—exercises. Some sub-species of wolves evolved into dogs, who performed many tasks other than what the wolves were kept for.

Once human beings (or the later hominids) learnt agriculture, cats were domesticated to keep rats away from devouring the foodgrains.

But today, we normative human beings do not look to either dogs or cats to perform the same functions. German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers remain the guard dogs, Belgian Malinois are the choice of the US Secret Service to patrol and secure the White House. 

But most humans have breeds like Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Pugs at home. They provide no security against burglars and other evildoers. They will wag their tails and welcome them. 

They love people. 

They have been taught over centuries to love human beings and that’s ingrained in their genetic code now. Oh, human beings, tail waggy-waggy!

Juno came to join our family when she was three weeks old. Of course, she initially treated us with a natural suspicion. What sort of creatures were these two-legged carbon-based mortals? 

But that doubt went away quite speedily when she figured out that we meant no harm to her, but wanted to make her comfortable, even though there were some rules that she would have to follow. These rules she accepted with the cocker spaniel equivalent of a shrug and a bit of a sulk.

Like... Oh well, if these are some insignificant norms I have to follow to not be tapped with a rolled-up newspaper on my nosey and sleep on a soft mattress and enjoy the air conditioner, so be it. They give me food, they take care of me. These are small concessions to make.

So the pet gets a lot from its looking-afterers—I am deliberately coining this word instead of using “masters”, since that applies truly only to police dogs and guard dogs.

What do we get?

Strangely enough, the scientific community jury is out on this.

According to a research report published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1991, having a pet could be good for one’s health.

“A 10-month prospective study was carried out which examined changes in behaviour and health status in 71 adult subjects following the acquisition of a new pet (either dogs or cats),” reads the report. “A group of 26 subjects without pets served as a comparison over the same period. Both pet-owning groups reported a highly significant reduction in minor health problems during the first month following pet acquisition, and this effect was sustained in dog owners through to 10 months. The pet-acquiring groups also showed improvements in their scores on the 30-item General Health Questionnaire over the first 6 months and, in dog owners, this improvement was maintained until 10 months. In addition, dog owners took considerably more physical exercise while walking their dogs than the other two groups, and this effect continued throughout the period of study. The group without pets exhibited no statistically significant changes in health or behaviour, apart from a small increase in recreational walking. The results provide evidence that pet acquisition may have positive effects on human health and behaviour, and that in some cases these effects are relatively long term.”

But in the 2000s, Swedish scientists carried out a massive study on the same topic in their country, with 39,995 respondents, of whom about 25,000 were non-pet owners, and about 15,000 were pet owners. The study found that there was not really much difference pets made to their owners’ physical or mental health. It depended more on the people’s own habits.

Reporting in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health in 2009, they wrote: “Pet ownership was associated with both positive and negative aspects of health, physical/leisure activities and socio-demographics. Pet owners had better general health but suffered more from mental health problems than non-pet-owners. Their leisure activities involved a greater interest in nature life and/or gardening than those of non-pet-owners...

“Pet owners differ from non-pet-owners in aspects of socio-demographics, health, physical/leisure activities and work situation. This study, based on a general regional population in Sweden, showed differences of both a positive and a negative kind between non-pet-owners and pet owners concerning aspects of health, physical and leisure activities, and work situation.”

So, you more or less remain the way you are, whether you own a pet or not. And owning a pet could even have a negative impact on you!

This last part I find somewhat difficult to believe, except in four cases. 

One, where people have acquired a pet to indicate to the world that they are earning well. After all, a pet needs food and healthcare, so owning a pet means you have a pretty comfortable disposable income after caring for your family. 

In the condominiums in Gurgaon, where I live, rich families pay up to Rs5,000 a month to low-income people to take their dog out for a morning and evening walk every day.

The second case is when families adopt animals because they see that a lot of other families in their income or demographic class have pets. 

This can operate in two ways: “The Mehras seem so happy with their poodle, so let’s us also get one, no?” or “The Mehras are always showing off their poodle, so let’s us also get one, no?” 

So, either you are imitating blindly without applying much thought to what you intend to do, or you are doing it out of envy.

Three, you just want a guard dog. You live in a farmhouse or a mansion, so you feel that you need a Doberman to keep a close eye at night on the gates and the perimeter. Fair enough. You need this protection.

Four, you do it for your ego satisfaction. I have seen people keeping large dogs, which are fundamentally outdoors animals, cooped up in their 1,500-2,000 sq. ft apartments. 

These dogs are miserable, since they have no space to run around, and in at least one instance, I have seen a dog in this sort of situation develop a neurological condition, having fits. 

I was the person who hugged her and gave comfort and lent anti-convulsant pills to the owners. Who were clueless. They didn’t understand what they had wrought.

These four cases are not mutually exclusive, but in all such cases, keeping a dog cannot by definition help your physical or mental health much (unless ego satisfaction can be counted as boosting mental health). 

And in such circumstances, you often have an unhappy dog (other than when you have a guard dog, because some dog breeds are meant specifically for this function, and are happy performing it).

We acquired our dog Juno—the late Juno—because our daughter—an only child—had reached her teens, and we thought that having a pet would teach her about responsibility, and how to take care of a sibling. 

Our cat had passed away when our daughter was only seven, and anyway cats are very different creatures from dogs (more of that later).

This may seem to be a sort of “strategic approach”, and we plead guilty if you think that way, but what we received was bigger than any return-on-investment expectations for any mutual or realty fund.

We went to a vet and explained our need to her, and told her about ourselves and the size of our apartment. She suggested that we keep a small dog—either a beagle or a cocker spaniel. Then she recommended that a cocker spaniel would be better for us since we had a daughter and not a son. 

A beagle was more boisterous, got bored easily and needed a fairly high level of excitement/entertainment. He would be a perfect companion for a young boy, but perhaps not so for a girl. 

A cocker spaniel was quieter and could be ideal for a girl. We accepted her advice, and she got us a three-week-old puppy whom we would call Juno.

The day after Juno passed away, we were speaking to the vet, who had been the only doctor Juno had ever known, and she revealed that she had purposely got us a female cocker spaniel because the females of the species were more loving and giving. I don’t know if this is gender bias or empirical truth.

However, Juno, certainly, was very loving and giving.

She taught our daughter empathy and compassion, or rather, made her more empathic and compassionate. Most dogs are child-like, and while demanding their due (a meal, a play session, a walk) and throwing tantrums sometimes (especially when she has been left alone at home for a few hours, or after a bath), they also come with a lot of love hardwired into them, which they are never shy to exhibit.

You can’t help loving a loving dog, unless you are a proper, certified rectal orifice.

Cats are a different kettle of fish altogether. They display love only on very rare occasions, and most cats, even when they are dependent on you for their basic needs, avoid human company as much as they can afford to.

They are hardly child-like. They are haughty creatures and will only let you stroke them when they feel they will get something out of it. They believe they own the place—they mark their territory very assiduously—and treat the humans as service providers to Her Feline Majesty.

After all, look at it, using her logic. There are these humans who are providing her food and shelter, and trying to stroke her, so obviously she is the royal being and these are her attendants. 

She shows her displeasure when she believes that the services being provided are falling below the expected standards, and is quite obstinate and unforgiving till the standards are upped. 

Our cat Kitkat, for example, would not touch any cheese other than a particular brand—she would just refuse to eat. Defeated, we would go out and hunt for that brand and buy it.

Dogs, in comparison, are grateful for the love and care we give them. In return, they provide unconditional and unquestioning love. Some dogs do this exuberantly, others in a quieter fashion, but all dogs pay you back in the same coin if you love them. 

And very often, they pay you back more than you had expected. So you can’t help but feel responsible for their well-being. You enter a virtuous cycle of love with a dog.

I must make it clear here that I am not making any value judgements. Supposedly, you can either be a cat person, or you can be a dog person, but having kept both a cat and a dog, I can honestly assert that I am both a cat and a dog person. They are just animals with two very different types of thinking.

The two and a half years she was with us, we loved Kitkat, and when she died, we mourned her as much as we are mourning Juno now.

And cats too can be very loyal, as much as dogs. In the business school I attended, there was a cat who ruled the campus. She was imperious and when we sat down to eat in the dining hall, she went from table to table, demanding her share of the food, often slapping our knees with her paws when she felt that the service was poor.

Unfortunately, we were also in the habit of smoking grass and blowing the smoke into her face and afterwards watch her walk around unsteadily, blown out of her mind. So we called her Stone, a name to which she responded. The girl students called her Rosemary. She responded to that name too.

When Stone had three kittens, we named them Pebble 1, Pebble 2 and Pebble 3. The girls called them Parsley, Sage and Thyme. Many of us were pretty attached to this growing family.

Two years after we had graduated, I was visiting the campus with a former classmate who had had a very strong relationship with Stone—he had possibly blown more smoke into her face than anyone else. 

We were lounging by the lake in front of our campus, when Stone was sighted in the distance. My friend called out to her; and she walked up to us with great dignity, climbed onto his lap and promptly fell asleep.

All cats are also much more elegant creatures than most dogs—perhaps only Dobermans and hounds come close to matching them in their style when they move. No wonder, we use the term “feline grace”, and the term “canine grace” does not exist.

Though Juno had a leisurely rolling gait which we loved watching.

As we all know, pets help to ward off loneliness. If someone is living alone, and does not have anyone close enough to share his or her feelings and emotions with, a pet is a great proxy. 

A cat may not pay you much attention when you blabber, but a dog will always look you in the eye and listen to whatever nonsense you are speaking.

You may actually even believe that she understands what is bothering you.

Dogs also are extremely sensitive to the mood and physical condition of their owners. If you are really down in the dumps, they may try to climb onto your lap to let you know that they are there for you, even if you have been forsaken by the world. If you are ill and lying in bed, they will try to lick you on your forehead—the only medical technique they know.

Both cats and dogs are great stress-busters. You don’t even need to play with them; just watch them do their stuff—walking around, chasing a pigeon or a squirrel or a lizard (always unsuccessfully), or even sleeping—and you can feel all the weight drop off your shoulders. You feel peaceful, at least for some period of time.

Apparently, both in the US and Europe, doctors prescribe pets to people suffering from depression or hypertension. And even in colleges, counsellors do the same to stressed out students—“therapy dogs”.

Of course, dogs need playtime. After her dinner, Juno would bring her favourite toy—a red ball made of tough rubber—and rub our legs with it. 

We had bought her more sophisticated playthings—things that squeaked when pressed, or rattled when shaken, but she stuck to that stupid red ball. If she couldn’t find her ball, she would come and look accusingly into our eyes. Then we had to go look for it.

Most of us today live in concrete jungles, and our dogs are prisoners there. Juno had never lived in the middle of nature, so would have had—by any scientific study—little knowledge of what was on offer, but the moment we opened the doors to our balconies, she would run out like her life depended on it, and walk around, sniffing the potted plants we have there.

Unlike in the West, here in India, we have very few pet-friendly public places. Maybe a few parks. We did not know that one of the largest and most beautiful parks in our city was out of bounds for dogs. 

We took Juno there, and she was ecstatic, running around freely, investigating everything on offer and barking. A security guard walked up, told us that dogs were not allowed in the park, and then—he was a good man—said that we could play with her there as long as she did not damage any of the flower beds. He was a good man, but we never went back there. Other guards may not have been so accommodating.

On my first visit to Europe, I was startled to see people walking down the streets with their dogs, even entering shops and restaurants, with no one minding or even paying attention. 

I still wonder whether this is a characteristic that differentiates the developed world from the developing, just as in the developed world, all public places and thoroughfares and transport are disabled-friendly. 

It remains a shame—and hardly anyone talks about it—how the vast majority of public amenities in India remains aloof and even hostile to the physically challenged.

As far as our personal experience goes, after a lot—a lot—of Internet search, we managed to find two resorts off the Delhi-Jaipur highway which allowed dogs in. We visited them twice each, with an enraptured Juno in tow. One can only hope that she is in a vast and luxurious resort right now, somewhere far off from our universe.

Today, when Juno is no longer with us, what do we miss most about her (or any other pet, actually)? 

Well, her excitement whenever the intercom in our apartment rang, because that usually meant someone was coming. Most of the time, it was a courier delivering a letter or a package, but it was someone new, and Juno always wanted to meet someone new. 

That “someone new” often was a person who was scared of dogs and had to be reassured that Juno was perfectly harmless, never bit anyone unless you were trying to give her a bath, but Juno was happy—there was another human being she had made an acquaintance of, however passing.

She loved car rides, and she hated car rides with the windows wound up shut. She wanted the windows open, so she could stick her head out and feel the wind in her hair. 

Our chauffeur was one of her favourite people. So was the lady who does the cooking and domestic chores for us; and our gardener; and the man who irons our clothes. In fact, everyone in our extended family was among her favourite people, including our friends and relatives. And she was one of their favourite people too.

During her last few days on earth, she was too weak to take her long daily walks. She would walk very slowly, trudge along, though she wanted her walk all right. On her last day, advised by our daughter, who was abroad, we took her for a car ride, which she enjoyed.

That night, I have no clue why, because it was—as far as I remember—the first time I did it, I picked her up from the floor in one corner of the living room where she was lying (and suffering) and put her on my lap. She died there soon afterwards.

I am thankful (to who?) that I took her for her last car ride, and I am extremely thankful (again, to who?) to get the chance to have her die in my arms, and not in one dark corner of the living room. She must have told me to do these things, in her own way, a way that is inexplicable to us humans. 

We connected, I suppose.

Like human children, she sought and demanded attention. If we as a family were sitting down and chatting, she would come and sit in the very centre of our circle, first look at us and register her protest, and if she was still not given adequate attention, paw us, bark, and in extreme cases, throw a tantrum. We always lost this battle of will. 

Juno would have her dinner at 8.30, and my daughter at nine. Then she would be in my daughter’s bedroom, where she was doing mysterious stuff with her laptop and iPod and smartphone, whatever teenagers do nowadays, and Juno would quietly snooze on her bed by her side. 

I usually have a late dinner, and maybe watch some TV even after dinner. When I would start putting off the lights, she figured out that the family’s day was over. It was a routine. She would then trot off to our bedroom, which was where she slept for most of her life.

But no. If in the middle of the night, my wife or I turned off the air conditioning or the heater (depending on the season), she would go back to my daughter’s room (she would usually have the AC or the heater on) and continue her night’s sleep there. She liked her ambient temperature just so.

It was great to come back home to her. Even if one of us had been away for half an hour, she would greet us like we had been gone for a month, excited beyond all means to see us and giving and demanding love. 

It is not that she had no sense of time. She had a perfectly tuned tick-tock inside her head. She knew exactly when it was time for her twice-daily walk, when it was time for her meals and her playtime. It was just that she was happy to see us. She wanted us all the time within reach.

Every day now, when I come back from work and ring the doorbell at home, I remember her scampering and scrabbling at the door, impatient to have the door opened so she could run around me and accuse me of leaving her behind for some hours, and sometimes days, but also telling me that she would forgive me that if I rubbed her head and stroked her back.

However, what I—and my near family and our extended family—most miss about her is her honesty, trust and purity. Her innocent eyes. Her fiercely wagging tail at the slightest joyful occasion—merely call out her name in a loving tone and she would come running, always expectant. Who expected more—her or us? We will never know.

What we do know is that no human being could have given us this much unalloyed joy for so long. It was only seven and half years, but it was still seven and a half years. 

Not for a day did she ever doubt our love for her, or have any doubts about her love for us. She remained curious about the world and anyone who visited, whom she always treated as a trustworthy person who would give her the same trust that she automatically bestowed on him or her.

Honesty and trust. Can we ask for more from anyone? We certainly cannot, from most people we meet, communicate with, deal with, transact with, work with.

That’s why we love pets, be they cats or dogs. 

We buried Juno with her beloved hard-rubber red ball and a couple of other toys, and we gave away her warm jacket and her blanket to a dog shelter. 

We keep her drinking water bowl in our living room filled every day. That’s our memorial to her.

And we will possibly never keep another pet.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com.

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